Deep in the heart of Kentucky’s rugged Eastern Mountain region there lives a woman who has fascinated and inspired me for two decades. She is known locally these days as “Mayor Nan” — the octogenarian chief executive of Hazard and advocate for its 5,467 residents.
Nan Gorman was born in Memphis, Tenn., on St. Patrick’s Day. She moved to Hazard in 1929 when her father, James Hagan, a recent medical school graduate and aspiring surgeon, went to work there. The stock market was about to crash and soon the Great Depression would be under way and take a brutal toll on the rural mountain economy. In the early days, her father was often paid for his services with chickens and eggs. Later, her father became chief surgeon for the region at the Hazard Hospital.
Hazard was not just small but remote because of the lack of roads in the region so the Hagan family, with little Nan in tow, traveled there from Tennessee via Virginia mountain passes. Nan’s parents, who she says still inspire and guide her today, ensured that she had a good education and gave her the opportunity to attend college but, as was prevalent then, expected that she would soon settle down as a young woman, marry and have children.
She eventually did all that but not until after she had experienced some of the world far from Hazard and her beloved Eastern Kentucky mountains that she says “are like the arms of a mother around us.” So enraptured was she with the natural beauty around Hazard that she became an artist to record scenes in pencil, ink, watercolors and oil paints.
After World War II, Nan graduated from the University of Cincinnati and attended the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. With an adventurous spirit, Nan flew to Egypt by herself to study ancient history and then traveled on for solo explorations of Greece, Rome, Paris and London. Having been exposed to such exotic, vibrant cities so full of opportunity, one could hardly have begrudged a choice to make her life elsewhere. But instead, she chose to come home to Kentucky. She got an apartment in Lexington and worked as a freelance artist drawing advertisements for clothing stores, doing architectural renderings and sketching historical landmarks. One day she saw a classified advertisement in which the state was looking for a full-time artist, and she subsequently became the first one ever employed by the commonwealth of Kentucky. Among her tasks was designing the state seal — United We Stand, Divided We Fall — which is still in use today.
At age 50, Nan settled again in Hazard, remarried — to her high school sweetheart, Bill, and together they formed a partnership that would have a lasting impact on virtually every sphere of the community. Bill was elected mayor in 1978, served for 35 years and never accepted a salary. When he returned home to the Lord three years ago, Nan asked that donations go to a fund to benefit local public schools. Wishing to continue Bill’s legacy of service to the community, Nan was subsequently elected mayor as a write-in candidate, winning by a 3-to-1 margin.
Nan’s governing personal ethic is to constantly strive to do better for Hazard’s residents for as long as she can. When last I spoke with her, Nan was alternately expressing pride over a young local girl’s success overcoming disadvantages, helping with the Appalachian Regional Hospital’s fundraising campaign and her efforts to obtain refrigerators for families in need.
An octogenarian well-deserving of retirement, Mayor Nan instead toils from sunrise to late in the evening on behalf of her town. She takes pleasure in the people and the mountain scenery and loves nothing more than to watch wildlife in her yard or to hear that some good fortune is improving someone’s life. My takeaway from every visit with Nan is appreciation for the big difference that one woman in a little town can make.
Elaine Chao, the 24th U.S. secretary of labor (2001-2009), is the first Kentucky woman to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet. She is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/11/embracing-her-old-kentucky-home-elaine-chao-nan-gorman-99487.html#ixzz2l2lPQLon